Microsoft launched the latest version of its Windows Phone 7 operating system (OS) on 27 September, hoping that version 7.5, called Mango, will stem the rising tide of the iPhone and Android smartphone devices currently preferred by consumers.
We went to Microsoft's UK offices for a briefing about what the new mobile OS holds for users and borrowed an HTC 7 Trophy T8686 with the Mango update installed, running on a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) contract from mobile operator Vodafone.
HTC 7 Trophy hardware specification
A quick look at the Trophy's hardware spec shows an ARM-based 1GHz processor, 576MB of system memory, a 3.8-inch touch screen, 8GB of internal storage, a 5-megapixel colour camera with flash and autofocus and 720p HD video recording capability.
The Trophy has dimensions of 118 x 61 x 12mm and a weight of 140g, and network communications include standard 3G mobile broadband, 802.11b/g/n wireless compatibility and Bluetooth 2.1 with enhanced data rate.
However, there's no facility for users to clip in a microSD card for their own portable local storage.
In use with the new features
Microsoft has kept its promises about the new features to be delivered in Mango. One of the major ones is multi-tasking: the ability to have programs still running while users switch between them.
This means programs can automatically update Microsoft’s Live Tiles. Live Tiles are square chunks of screen estate used for displaying updates of applications, such as Facebook, or grouped sets of applications [see picture].
Windows Phone Mango now has native access to social networking applications such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Windows Live, and these can be pinned to the start screen as separate tiles. Google's Facebook rival Google+ is conspicuous by its absence.
The other features deployed in Mango to improve workflows are threads and groups. Threads allow users to switch easily between different communications methods when contacting people.
We were able to use Facebook chat to have a conversation with a friend, before switching to another comms application, such as Windows Messenger or standard SMS, to continue the conversation [see picture].
In groups, users get the facility to contact groups [contacts grouped into a single Live Tile] in one go, rather than having to add email addresses into email headers.
Users of the Microsoft ecosystem will also be buying into a cloud-based one since this is the main method for downloading content onto the phone.
Just as Apple's iPhone needs iTunes software, Mango needs Windows' iTunes equivalent, which is Microsoft Zune.
To get applications, music and ringtones on the phone, or to get the new Mango update for a Windows 7 phone, users need a Zune account and must download the Zune client to a Windows PC [see picture].
This was easy to set up. Zune can be configured to look at specific folders on Windows desktop systems in order to transfer media content such as music, photos and videos to the phone.
The online sites accessible with Zune can also be used to buy content, but it would have been much better if Microsoft had allowed users to transfer content located on portable media storage.
Mango has a full copy of the Internet Explorer 9 browser and accessing websites and reading websites is good, with the smooth finger-and-thumb zooming ability.
Mango debuts Local Scout, an application that pulls out local information capped at a 25-mile radius.
There's also Quick Cards, an application that aggregates information about products, events or places on a single screen. Rather than doing a search for information related to a single thing, Quick Cards pulls out a single pane showing specific details, such as price, location and any relevant phone numbers.
Other added features include indoor maps, audible directions when using maps to get to places and the ability to use the phone camera to search barcode images, and book, CD or DVD covers.
Windows Phone Mango users can now access their Windows Live SkyDrive online storage.
If a company has moved users onto Microsoft's cloud-based Office offering, Mango users can also access Office 365 portals with their Office content.
Microsoft says it has improved the Office applications on Mango, but you'll be wanting to use the desktop versions of Office applications for anything other than light editing.
It is easy to sync documents from Windows Live SkyDrive and also access documents in our Office365 account. In Windows Phone Mango, users can now sync Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Word documents, whereas only OneNote documents could be synced with the earlier Windows Phone 7 OS.
You can also pin Office documents to your start screen so you can work on them as soon as the phone fires up or resumes.
A downloadable Lync Mobile app will be available in late 2011, according to Microsoft. If you have an Office 365 account, you'll be directed to the App Marketplace to download the Lync Mobile app. Lync helps provide better communication and collaboration with co-workers, through better video features and presence indications. Lync Mobile will also work with Lync Server 2010 on-premise deployments, but will need a server update to go with the mobile Lync app.
The HTC Trophy 7 Smartphone we reviewed the system on has a 1.3Ah lithium ion battery and it gave about 8-9 hours of battery life if the phone is used constantly [see picture].
One of the key features needed by users is an easy way of seeing how much battery life a phone has left.
When using Mango, however, it’s a click to get to the application list, then another to access the settings, then another to access battery saver. The remaining battery life can be seen at the bottom of the screen as a percentage.
The battery saver feature means the phone will turn off services to preserve battery life. Applications won't run in the background, and so won't deliver live updates for social networking apps or email. Users will still be able to use the phone as a phone, and receive text messages, but all other activity will revert to being manually driven.
You can pin the settings to a tile on the start screen, but you can't do the same with battery saver to get a live update of your battery state.
Users not using the phone continuously could therefore see a normal battery life of a couple of days before they need to resort to the USB charging system that the Trophy uses.
The availability of decent applications for a smartphone platform like Windows Phone is one factor in getting users to switch.
When the Mango update was released, Microsoft made its application accessible through a web-based interface on the phone [see picture].
Microsoft has only had developer tools aimed at the Mango phone update since May, but declined to say how many applications currently use the new functions in the Mango update.
Mango is a good update for Windows Phone users, but not enabling users to plumb in portable local storage is a mistake in our view.
Workflow is improved through the Live Tiles feature, and access to Windows Live SkyDrives and Office 365 portals is welcome.
Whether this will drive users of Android and Apple iOS to switch devices is another question entirely.